Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraqi Maqams: Musical Heritage Steeped in Sorrow

Iraqi maqams are distinguished cultural expressions, serving as profound embodiments of Iraqi society, history and artistry.

Iraqi Maqams
Iraqi maqam singer Hussein al-Aazami (C) performs with his traditional orchestra at the Syrian Opera house in Damascus on May 30, 2011. SYRIAN OPERA HOUSE / AFP.

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

Iraqi maqams are distinguished cultural expressions, serving as profound embodiments of Iraqi society, history and artistry.

As part of Iraq’s illustrious musical heritage, these maqams encapsulate a rich historical essence intricately woven with the experiences of a resilient populace that has endured Iraq’s trials and tribulations over the centuries.

Maqams and Key Instruments

There are eight main maqams in Arabic music. The maqam represents a structured arrangement of musical elements following specific parameters and established guidelines for categorising musical melodies.

This system facilitates the musician’s handling of his instrument and, consequently, the musical scale. Maqam World describes it as “a system of scales, habitual melodic phrases, modulation possibilities, ornamentation techniques and aesthetic conventions that together form a rich melodic framework and artistic tradition.

The eight maqams that Eastern musicians unanimously acknowledge as the primary types are Saba, Nahawand, Ajam, Bayati, Sikah, Hijaz, Rast and Kurd. These designations are tied to the characteristics of the musical elements used and the emotions evoked in the listener.

Moreover, they bear a geographical association linked to specific regions. Iraq, the birthplace of the oud, the primary instrument in Arabic music, has developed unique maqams, primarily rooted in religious and social heritage. Specific musical instruments, namely the santur, joza and riq, are indispensable in performing Iraqi maqams.

The santur is sometimes compared to the well-recognised Qanun. This instrument’s history in Iraq traces back to the eras of the Assyrians and Babylonians. The santur has 76 strings – made of iron, bronze or copper – bundled in groups of four to produce a uniform tune.

The joza is another stringed instrument renowned for its distinctive sound akin to that of a violin. Crafted from a coconut shell, this instrument is equipped with four strings. On the other hand, the riq is the primary percussion instrument in Iraqi maqams.

Religion, Nationality and Geography

Researchers have identified over sixty types of Iraqi maqams, some of which are primary types, while the remainder are subcategories of the main types. According to Wissam al-Azzawi, the head of the Iraqi Musicians Union in Europe, there are seven primary Iraqi maqams: Rast, Bayati, Sikah, Hijaz Diwan, Saba, Ajam Ashiran and Husayni.

Abdulwahab Bilal, a former professor of the history of Arabic music at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, has defined numerous Iraqi sub-maqams. Among them are Ibrahimi, Juburi, Mahmoudi, Nari, Lami, Kirkuk, Bajilan, Hwaizawi, Qazzaz, Hijaz Kar Kurd, Araybun Arab, Ushaq and Arwah.

These maqams often bear names linked to clans or regions. For instance, the Juburi maqam, widely used in mawwals, is named after the Jubur clan, one of the largest clans in Iraq. Maqam Lami, based on maqam Kurd and originally a melody, is attributed to the Bani Lam Bedouin tribe in Iraq. Herders originally used it to herd camels, and it is known for its mournful tone, as is the Saba maqam. Experts note that the extensive use of glissando imparts a deeply sorrowful quality to this maqam, often described as a “crying” maqam, thanks to the performer’s skilful use of vibrations to induce feelings of sadness.

Some Iraqi sub-maqams, such as the Kirkuk maqam, are linked to their regions of origin, while others are connected to nationalism. The Hijaz Kar Kurd maqam is attributed to the Kurds, and the Araybun Arab maqam is associated with the Arabs.

Iraqi maqams, including Rast, Bayati, Sikah, Hijaz Diwan, Saba, Husayni and Ajam Ashiran, were often performed with classical Arabic poetry. Panjagah, Awj, Khanabat, Nawa Athar, Mansuri, Araybun Ajam, Quryat, Bashiri, Tiflis, Jammal, Nairuz Ajam, Urfa, Dasht and Hwaizawi are other well-known forms accompanied by poetry. On the other hand, some maqams, including Ibrahimi, Biherzawi, Mahmoudi, Nari, Makabel, Juburi, Sharqi Rast, Sharqi Dukah, Hileilawi and Bajilan, are renowned for being accompanied by Iraqi folk poetry.

Maqam Ajam Ashiran

It is worth noting that the Iraqi sub-maqams have often remained closely associated with their respective locales. However, the primary Iraqi maqams have transcended these boundaries. One such example is the Ajam Ashiran maqam. This maqam’s name has seen varying interpretations. Some sources suggest that it was named the Rashid maqam, in homage to the al-Rashid tribe, while others contend it is affiliated with the al-Ashiran tribe.

In Western music, the tonic note of the Ajam maqam is “C” or “Do.” However, in Eastern music, it is often “B flat” or “Si bemolle,” commonly referred to as the Ashiran note.

The Ajam Ashiran maqam is considered a robust maqam, having characteristics akin to Western major scales. Compositions within this maqam radiate energy and have been used in various contexts, including military marches, lively compositions, national anthems and school songs.

Maqam Hijaz Diwan

Iraqi Maqams
Iraqi musicians take part in a “Maqam” music festival in Baghdad on June 9, 2009. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

The primary maqam Hijaz is one of the oldest Eastern maqams, originating in the Saudi region of Hijaz. However, its influence extends across Iran, Iraq, the Levant, Egypt and the Maghreb. The Hijaz maqam is renowned for its abundant emotional depth, often evoking sentiments of sorrow and compassion.

The Hijaz Diwan maqam builds upon the primary Hijaz maqam. The term “Diwan,” according to Maqam experts, means a “perfect octave.”

In musical terms, the Hijaz maqam comprises eight notes, whereas the Hijaz Diwan introduces quarter tones or half flats. This maqam has a distinct character and is of great significance to Muslims, as it is used in the call to prayer. Distinguished reciters also employ it for the recitation of the Holy Quran.

Maqam Husayni

Husayni is one of the most renowned Iraqi maqams, often considered one of the primary maqams in Arabic music. It chiefly draws its essence from the Bayati maqam – another distinctive Iraqi maqam – whose origins are rooted in the Bayat village in Iraq. The Bayati maqam is widely regarded for its versatility in Arabic music, as it artfully blends sorrow, tenderness, sadness and joy.

The Husayni maqam starts with the root jins (a basic melodic unit) Bayati on the tonic, then transitions to Husayni, traversing jins Rast and jins Nahawand on the fourth degree. However, its sayr (melodic course) emphasises the 5th scale degree as a note of tension resolving down to the fourth degree, which is obligatory within the Bayati maqam.

The name of this maqam is often attributed to its frequent use in latmiyas, which are rituals performed by Shia Muslims to express grief. These rituals involve poetic recitations and chest-thumping as they commemorate the tragic events surrounding Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who perished in the Battle of Karbala.

However, it is important to note that latmiyas incorporate various maqams, and this particular one is also widely used in the recitation of the Quran and calls to prayer. Iraqi maqams are generally known for their sombre tones, contributing to a melancholic quality in Iraqi singing, even in songs that express joy.

History of Sorrow

The legacy of sorrow in Iraqi maqams is an integral part of the country’s musical tradition, rooted in historical narratives that extend beyond the grief associated with the events of Karbala. It is a phenomenon that originated in ancient Babylonian myths, like the myth of the goddess Ishtar’s mourning for her beloved.

The Babylonian creation myth described annual New Year’s celebrations in spring, specifically when day and night were of equal length. In this myth, the God Dumuzi is either slain or imprisoned in the underworld and is eventually rescued by Ishtar after days of tears, wailing and sad elegies. Dumuzi’s return symbolises the triumph of good over evil and darkness.

These myths have led to religious rituals such as processions through the Ishtar Gate and twelve-day festivals. On the seventh day, a sombre drama unfolds with the reenactment of Dumuzi’s death. It is portrayed with great emotional intensity, driving the masses to collective hysterical grief. The accompanying rituals involve cheek-slapping, garment-tearing, crying, wailing and lamentations.

Some experts believe that the Babylonian captivity and the numerous tragedies Iraq witnessed throughout its history – including the devastating fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 – have contributed to the enduring legacy of sorrow in Iraqi music.

Over time, with each major catastrophe, this legacy has evolved, adapting to the changing face of Iraq’s sorrow. Yet, various forms of grief persist, particularly evident in the Husayni processions commemorating the tragedy of Karbala, which involve body-slapping and other expressions of mourning for Husayn’s plight.

In essence, Iraqi maqams have created a unique musical context that sets Iraqi singing apart from the prevailing musical styles in the Arab world. This unmatched musical tradition has organically emerged from Iraqi society, encompassing its cultural, religious, political and historical heritage. In other words, the Iraqi musical landscape, including its maqams, reflects its environment and the multifaceted factors that have moulded this distinct setting.

Fanack Water Palestine